Sibling Rivalry and Caregiving

The article Getting Along to Care for Mom by Barry J. JacobsAARP, really hit home in our household.

My husband and I were caregivers for his mother for seven years when she moved from Florida to our community in Pennsylvania and later into our home. Because I had had a historically good relationship with my husband’s family, I never anticipated that caregiving would weaken the rapport we had developed for over 40+ years.

Barry Jacobs noted several ways that caregiving impacts sibling relationships, and although the specifics of our stories sometimes differ, the generalities are the same. Jacob’s observations are in black, ours are in red.

  • Sibling disagreements created resentment that caused long-term damage to family relationships.
    We thought we had established a cooperative plan of shared-responsibility, but two of the four siblings did not meet agreed upon expectations.
  • Caregiving relationships can become strained.
    Although their brotherly relationship had already declined in adulthood, with caregiving it devolved into estrangement. A good relationship with a sister also became strained to the point of estrangement, but fortunately it has been mended.
  • Attitudes about level-of-care needs can differ. My husband’s brother and sister-in-law were the most insistent that their mother could no longer live independently, but it was also they who were the least-willing make sacrifices or provide care. 
  • Disagreements replay old childhood dynamics.  Repressed childhood resentments were the root of the adult conflict that began to surface when my husband left home to go to college.  The resentment became toxic decades later after their mother died and the estate was being settled. 
  • The dynamics created by birth order still had an impact.  When growing up, there was a definite pecking order in my husband’s family based upon the siblings’ age and sex.  This dynamic played out again in adulthood when my husband’s mother named him Executor of her will near the end of her life. 
  • Pulling together to care for a parent(s) makes some adult siblings draw closer together, but many sibling disagreements about needs and how to share responsibility create resentments that sometimes simmer, occasionally explode, and invariably cause long-term damage. As caregiving needs escalated, my husband and I called a meeting to re-clarify our expectations for all four siblings to honor their commitment.  After the meeting, resentment grew, leading to family mediation, which was conducted by the hospice spiritual advisor.  There was begrudging agreement and follow through until the end.  But after their mother died and the estate was being settled, there were financial accusations, the repercussion of which was long-term resentment and estrangement. 

 Again, visit for tips about:  How to Share a Caregiving Role with One or More Siblings.” 

Fostering your parent’s independence

Although I am now a senior citizen, finding balance continues to be one of the most challenging aspects of being a parent. Parenting my children as they grew up often felt like walking a tightrope, and even though my children are now grown with families of their own, I frequently feel the same way.  The funny thing is, as a caregiver for a parent, parent-child roles can become reversed, and you find yourself on that tightrope all over again.  I think the article 4 Ways a Caregiver Can Encourage a Loved One’s Independence by Barry J. Jacobs, AARP is a good example.

In this article, Jacobs describes the problem he had finding the balance between doing too much and doing too little for his mother, saying: “If I had done nothing at all for her, then I believe she would have floundered. But I finally realized that by doing too much for her, I trampled her dignity.” 

His four recommendations, with my interpretations, follow:

  • Powwow and plan:  Communicate with your parent early, often, and openly. 
  • Don’t jump in with help too quickly. It is advantageous to allow your parent to be as self-reliant as they can be.  Doing too much, too soon, fosters dependency.
  • Focus on what your loved one can still do. No one likes to feel marginalized—as if they no longer have relevance.  Build upon your parent’s strengths. 
  • Frame help as empowering. Sometimes seniors regard “aids” as demeaning; they avoid using them because they think it makes them appear “old”.  Discuss how using “aids” can open up more of the world to them:  with a hearing aid you won’t miss so many conversations; with a transport chair you will be able to go many more places.  

After reading Barry Jacobs article, I identified three examples of when it was difficult for me to find the best level of balance with my mother-in-law, for whom I was the primary caregiver. 

The first was when she moved into our home after multiple episodes of falls that resulted in injury, hospitalization, and rehabilitation. For weeks I assisted with her daily morning exercises. After she had mastered them, I asked her doctor if it was safe for her to do them on her own–to which he replied, “Yes.” I suggested she do them at the kitchen island while I was buzzing about with the my household chores.  But, she did not take the initiative and I let it drop. 

Another task I encouraged her to do independently was to dress herself after I had set out her clothes. 

Although it was a slow and difficult process, I expressed to Mom that she would lose all her skills if she didn’t keep working at them.

What to Do about Mama? p. 23

Lastly was the task of setting up her medications.  I had offered a few times but she always turned me down.  My mother-in-law disliked the medication prescribed for congestion because it made her cough, and therefore, she did not take it regularly, as directed. Because of her advanced congestive obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), it wasn’t long before she became ill and was hospitalized with pneumonia .  After she was released from the hospital, her daughter spoke to her mom and insisted she allow me to set up the medications.  That did not set well, but the family did not relent. 

After the phone call was over, Mom came out, rolling her walker with a vengeance, and said, “Are you happy now?”

What to Do about Mama? p 13

Whether or not I made the best decisions, I do not know.  But I do know–it can can be tricky!